Local forum on response to sexual violence is eye-opening

Joan-e Rapine of Jewish Family & Children's Services speaks, flanked by Amalia C. Mora of the University of Arizona, left, and Alba Jaramillo of YWCA Southern Arizona. (Simon Rosenblatt)

Alba Jaramillo, J.D., has worked for almost two decades in the field of human rights, particularly immigrant and women’s rights. She’s an expert on domestic and sexual violence, both as a professional and as a survivor herself. Yet none of that prevented her from being terrorized by a serial stalker, right here in Tucson.

Jaramillo was one of six panelists at a 2018 Local Leader’s Forum held Friday, April 20 on “How does our community respond to sexual violence?” The morning event was a powerful and enlightening examination of the issue not only in Southern Arizona but in American society as a whole.

Organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Jewish History Museum in collaboration with the YWCA Southern Arizona, the panel featured five women and one man, all of whom have spent years in the trenches, working with social service agencies and other nonprofit organizations. The forum was held at the JFSA office, known as the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy, with about 45 people in attendance.

“We are delighted to be putting on this program, and very sad and angry that we have to,” said JCRC Chair Richard White, opening the event. Hollywood celebrities have put the #MeToo movement into the spotlight, he said, but there is much that needs to be addressed locally “for people who are never going to appear in the headlines, and just need our help.”

Liane Hernandez of the YWCA and Jaimie Luria of the Jewish History Museum served as moderators.

Although each panelist’s perspective was different, the pervasiveness of the problem and the need to focus on prevention and education were among the themes that emerged.

Amalia C. Mora, Ph.D., program coordinator at the University of Arizona’s new Consortium on Gender-Based Violence, spoke of being a survivor not only of sexual violence but also of the everyday violence girls and women experience, from boys and men talking over them, to being stared at and harassed on the street. “I remember being 10 years old the first time it happened to me,” she said.

It is important to initiate research driven by the social sciences and the humanities, Mora said, because “the old models of dealing with harm through punitive measures, enforced by law enforcement and often enabled by other institutions like the medical-industrial complex — they aren’t working.” The consortium, part of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Science, seeks to look at violence as a social illness, she said, rather than a result of individual psychosis.

Timoteio Padilla is a community activist with Take Back the Night, an annual event against sexual violence, and the Bruv Luv Collective. Growing up, he said, he saw violence toward women and girls normalized. He began to work on domestic violence education with youth and families but said he was hesitant, as a man, to take a job at Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse until the friend who was recruiting him told him “men need to be doing this work.” With Bruv Luv, a grassroots men’s collective, Padilla focuses on challenging male supremacy.

When a perpetrator is caught up in a punitive system and subsequently cannot get a job, Padilla noted, it can affect generations to come. “That increases the risk of violence as opposed to decreasing it.”

Joan-e Rapine, M.S., LAC, NCC, a clinical therapist with Project LEAH (“Let’s End Abusive Households) at Jewish Family & Children’s Services,  came to this work after being a stay-at-home mother and childbirth educator. “I was just appalled at how many women had sexual abuse in their history, and violence in their home, and that translated into fear of giving birth,” she said.

JFCS serves the entire community, Rapine said, noting that Jewish statistics on sexual violence match those in other populations. However, the Jewish concept of shalom bayit (peace in the home), seen as a woman’s responsibility, can add to the stigma of being abused. There are men who are victims of sexual violence, too, she said, and that gets talked about even less.

April Ignacio of Indivisible Tohono, Tohono O’odham Nation, presented a startling statistic: 84 percent of indigenous women experience violence. Equally disturbing, until recently, tribal courts could not prosecute a non-indigenous person for any crime they committed in “Indian Country” (a federal designation). The Violence Against Women Act of 2013 allows tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians for violence against women, but so far, Ignacio said, only two tribes have successfully filed to be allowed to do so. Also, it was just last month that President Trump signed the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act. Co-sponsored by Arizona Sen. John McCain and named for an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered on the Navajo Nation, it expands the early warning system for finding abducted children to include tribal lands.

Earlier that week, Ignacio helped organize a well-received workshop, “A Call to Men,” that encouraged Tohono O’odham men “to start owning the violence.” It’s a hard thing to expect, she acknowledged, “but in order for us to change those actions, we have to have those hard conversations.”

Kate Meyer of Take Back the Night and Denim Day Tucson: Artists Working to End Sexual Violence said she, like several other panelists, is a survivor herself, although like many other survivors, she didn’t think of herself as such until recently. Struggling to keep her emotions in check, she said she had been re-traumatized two weeks ago.

Later, responding to a question about what a safe and healthy social environment would look like, Meyer spoke of creating a culture of consent, with everyone, starting with little children, understanding body autonomy — the permission to touch. “As a parent, it’s important to pick up on your child’s cues, and to not hold them if they want don’t want to be held,” she said. “And to hold them if they do want to be held.”

Rapine said she’d worked with a woman who at age 65 felt empowered for the first time to say, “No, I don’t want a hug.”

Jaramillo is director of the YWCA Southern Arizona Women Out of Poverty Initiative and its Latina Leadership Institute. Her extensive resume includes two years as co-executive director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, an umbrella for more than 70 nonprofit organizations. She noted that while no one is immune from sexual violence, people who face multiple levels of oppression based on race, poverty or immigration status have a harder time accessing the services they need.  The YWCA’s promotora (community educator) program has 75 immigrant women who have gone through a full year of gender violence intervention training, she said, “and are currently in the community making a difference,” including getting the first sexual assault awareness month proclamation passed in Pima County and organizing a stalking awareness conference.

The United States has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world, she said, and is one of the only countries not to sign onto the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

While she has hundreds of stories she could tell about how the system has failed to protect people, Jamarillo decided to tell her own. She had casually dated a man, a local celebrity, for a month. When she broke off the relationship, he began stalking her with hundreds of phone calls, following her around, and eventually destroying her property. “I made police reports, of course,” she said, but since she had no evidence, “the police would come and would just laugh.”

Jaramillo began to remember the names of ex-girlfriends he’d mentioned and connected with them on Facebook. “We identified 11 women he was stalking at the same time,” she said, most of them afraid he would murder them. Not one case had been referred to a detective. Jaramillo found five women willing to go with her to the Tucson Police Department to demand action. They learned that the various reports on this man had never been connected; even Jaramillo’s seven reports were not linked in the police database.

“Because I was so insistent and said I wasn’t leaving … they did assign a detective who was amazing,” she said. Jaramillo finally caught the stalker trespassing on tape. The women were able to take him to court and all won their cases. The perpetrator has to wear an ankle monitor now. But it was only her own act of agency and creating community that led to this outcome.

“Even when you rationally know it’s not your fault,” even when you work in the field, you still feel shame and embarrassment, Jamarillo said, adding that this was only the second time she’d talked about the experience publicly.

Rapine, the JFCS therapist, remembers hearing from women who were laughed at by the police when she was living in Honolulu and working at a domestic violence shelter.

It’s up to the community to fix the system, Rapine said.  “Stop the silence! We need to talk about it every day.”